In mid October the US House of Representatives passed a bill that included sexual orientation in the expanded Federal Hate Crimes Laws. The Senate is expected soon to go along with the House of Representatives in including sexual orientation as a basis for those crimes. Religious conservatives appear to be opposed to the new bill based upon their comments.
The bill is named after Matthew Sheppard, who was beaten to death in Wyoming over a decade ago because he was gay. If you remember he was attached to a fence and passersbys for a number of days thought he was a scarecrow. The bill is also being named after James Byrd who also over a decade ago was killed by a gang of white men who tied him to a pickup truck and dragged him behind the vehicle.
Laws such as these cause First Amendment advocates great quandary. On one hand most of us sympathize with the victims of these crimes and certainly ideologically find nothing in common with the oppressors. Morally we find it reprehensible that somebody could be targeted because they are either black or gay and believe that all people should be treated equally regardless of their race, color, creed, religion or sexual orientation.
On the other hand, the most common way to prove a hate crime is by the words spoken by the assailant. For example: if one person is walking down the street and another attacks that person the crime maybe a battery or an aggravated battery. The motivation for that attack could be money, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or any amount of myriad possibilities. However, if an assailant throws out terms such as “dirty Jew”, “faggot”, “nigger” or any other same type of bias remarks then that assault could be classified as a hate crime and the sentence could be much more severe. In both instances, the victim has received the same amount of damage. In both cases the motivation may be the same, the only difference is that in the latter situation the use of words have also been spoken. Therefore, from a First Amendment standpoint free expression is being penalized and in fact expression is being criminalized.
Again on the other side, is the thought that the assailant is not being punished for those words that he has spoken but rather is being punished because his motivation is based upon a hatred for a group that has every right to exist peacefully in this Country without being singled out. The fact that he has uttered those words only makes it easier to prosecute that hate crime, but it is the motivation to deprive somebody of peaceful dignity because of who they are that is adding to the severity of the prosecution. Those same advocates would argue that there could be other factors other than speech or written or spoken words that could lend itself to the added hate crimes prosecution. They would argue that speech is not an essential element.
This argument belies the fact that almost any type of indicator of a hate crime relies on the assailants no matter what form it may come, expression of his feelings and beliefs. And in this Country we all have the right to like, dislike or even hate someone or anything that we choose. Is this in fact the essence of a free society? However, not only do hate crimes base their prosecution on someone for expressing or speaking their mind, but they also in essence make it a crime to exercise one’s choice of who they like and who they dislike. Remember regardless if one likes or dislikes someone the assault is still the assault, the battery is still the battery and the punishment is still there for the violation of the law regardless of the hate crime.
It can be argued that hate crime prosecutions by the very nature diminish crimes that are committed for other reasons. Someone who is beaten up and robbed of their life savings becomes less of a victim than someone who is beaten up and robbed of a piddling amount of money because they fit in one of the classifications that renders it a hate crime. In both situations there has been a robbery. In both situations there has been a beating. In one situation the person’s dreams and goals may have been taken from them. In the other situation the motivation would fit into a hate crimes category. Shouldn’t equal justice demand that like crimes and like victims are treated the same and not lessen the severity of the crime because it is not based upon hate?
In essence, a thrill seeker who commits a crime for the adrenaline of it without regard to whom his victim is, is elevated in our society although he may be the true psychopath while the calculating aggressor who has chosen to hate for whatever reason is looked upon more egregiously. In this scenario the person who is a danger to all is punished more lightly than one who is a danger to some. Therefore have we not singled out a class for more protection, which hardly seems just. Equal crimes deserve equal punishment regardless of the motivation.
Sometimes we disagree with each other. Daniel Aaronson authored the words above. Jamie Benjamin does not totally agree. He believes that if the person who is the victim became that victim because of the victims status, then the person committing the crime should be punished more severely than if the motivation was not related to the status. If a gay person is beat up just because he is gay, that is more serious than of a person who is beat up because of anger, retaliation, money or those common place reasons.
It is a good thing to criminalize crimes that occur simply because of the “hate” of the status of a victim. It punishes people who victimize others just because of who they are and not what they did. It is a good thing for our society as a whole.